Who is Kalpana Chawla? The First Indian-Born Woman in Space

Growing up in Karnal, India, Kalpana Chawla was fascinated by flight and the cosmos and would go on to spend over 30 days in space as an astronaut. Her career is marked by important experiments, breaking barriers, and leaving a lasting legacy of inspiring children in India and around the world to pursue a career in space.


Photo courtesy of NASA.

Early Life and Education

Known by K.C. to her friends, Chawla studied aerospace engineering at Punjab Engineering College. Throughout her time there, her professors tried to convince her to switch her major due to the lack of opportunities for a woman pursuing an aerospace engineering career in India, but she was persistent.


After graduating, Chawla moved to the United States to pursue her master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas-Arlington, where she became a naturalized U.S. citizen, and her PhD in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder. On top of all three of her degrees, she had pilot licenses for airplanes, gliders, and seaplanes.



In 1988, Chawla started her career at NASA after earning her PhD. She researched powered-lift computational fluid dynamics at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California until she was selected for astronaut training in 1994.


She took her first flight aboard the space shuttle Columbia on the STS-87 mission in November 1997, where she was a mission specialist and prime robotic arm operator for the flight. Onboard, the shuttle orbited Earth 252 times before returning two weeks later.


Her first flight as an astronaut made her the first Indian-born woman in space, on top of being the first South Asian American woman to travel to space.


Chawla’s second mission into space took place in January 2003, again on the Columbia space shuttle. She and the rest of the crew completed over 80 experiments, splitting into two shifts to ensure work was always being done.


The Columbia Disaster

On February 1st, 2003, when the Columbia space shuttle returned to Earth to land at Kennedy Space Center in Houston, hot gas streamed inside during their reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. The cabin quickly depressurized, killing the entire crew.


On the mission with Chawla were Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon, David Brown, William McCool, and Michael Anderson.


A Legacy of Giving Back

Throughout her time as an astronaut, Chawla was passionate about providing opportunities for young girls in India. During NASA’s Summer Space Experience Program, her secondary school back in Karnal would send two girls to the International Space Education’s United Space School in Houston to learn about space from professionals and experts. Chawla would have the girls over to her house for dinner with a traditional Indian meal.


She regularly spoke to students at her numerous alma maters and spent time visiting high schools to encourage young girls to pursue a career in STEM. At the University of Texas – Arlington, where Chawla earned her Master’s degree, there is a scholarship for aerospace engineering graduate students in her honor and a residence hall named after her, Kalpana Chawla Hall.


Today, Chawla still serves as an inspiration. Rimpy Singh, a 2023 aerospace engineering graduate student from India, attended UTA for her Master’s, just like Chawla.


“Kalpana Chawla means to me: a guiding path,” said Singh in an interview with The Dallas Morning News, “I was into the aerospace field and space, but I [did] not know where to go. But when I read her biography, I got to know, these [are] the steps which can lead me to my goal, [and] she has already done it.”